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Information Literacy: A Conceptual Framework

Authority Is Constructed and Contextual

Video from the Univ. of Washington Libraries

Different communities recognize different kinds of authority. Whether a source is appropriately authoritative depends partly on the context in which the information is used (e.g., intended audience, purpose). (paraphrased)




From the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy:

Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.

Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations. An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. Thus, novice learners come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. Novice learners may need to rely on basic indicators of authority, such as type of publication or author credentials, where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.

Assignment Ideas

  • Provide students with two different information types (with two different goals) on the same topic by the same unnamed authoritative creator/author (for example, scholarly article and blog post). Use as discussion starter with students about context in relationship to authority. Reveal authorship later in discussion.
  • Ask students in professional or career-focused programs to consider who has authority within their areas of study and the origins of that authority.
  • Have students look at a blog, a video on YouTube, a collection of tweets, or some other type of social media regarding a contemporary event (e.g. demonstrations at Tahrir Square during the "Arab Spring" events). Ask them to describe how they would analyze and evaluate the authority the author(s) of the information. Are there ways to determine whether the individual was an actual witness or participant in the events? Are there ways to identify whether the individual or group that developed a collection of information has a particular political bias? Can they determine whether the author(s) has a particular status within the group he/she represents or is the individual reporting as an "average citizen"?

- From Draft 2 of the ACRL Frameworkp. 15-16

Questions about Your Discipline

  • Who are the authorities or power players in the discipline, either specifically or generally? How do they establish that authority?
  • What are current challenges to that authority?
  • How is information disseminated? How does this process contribute to the construction of authority in your field?
  • How does rhetorical style, including visuals, text, styles, conventions, etc. support authority construction through information sources in your field?

From Miller, S. D. (2016, May 20). Information Literacy in the Disciplines. Workshop presented at Thinking with Sources in the Disciplines, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.